A matter of the heart, Matthew 15:15-20

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the old children’s rhyme that tries to convince children to ignore taunts. Whatever good the rhyme may accomplish is countered by selling it with some big lies. First, every adult knows how much words can hurt. Second, God uses our words as a measure of our hearts. Oh my!

Matthew 15:15-20

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a persons mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Commentary

Peter reminds me of certain Christian adults living in 2015 in that he heard what Jesus said (in verse 11) but made little to no effort to understand it on his own (verse 15).[1] Nor did Jesus let the matter go by unremarked!

Verse 16 is a hammer stroke against spiritual timidity and laziness. The first word out of Jesus mouth is the rare Greek adverb akmen meaning “even yet.” The following “you” is plural, showing that Peter is not alone, but the crusher is the adjective meaning uncomprehending. Even after being with Jesus for an extended period, they still lack a keen spiritual sense! How did Jesus find this out? By the words that came out of Peter’s mouth. That fact is ironic in light of what Jesus teaches them next.

The question Jesus asks in verse 17 expects a “yes” answer. Yes, all the disciples know that food simply passes through the body and then leaves it. The same is true of wine, water and other things taken in through the mouth. They have no bearing on the persons defilement status because they tell us nothing about the person.

Jesus next reveals the actual source of personal defilement: the heart as revealed by the things that come out of a persons mouth (verse 18). While NIV has Jesus saying that the heart is the source of evil thoughts (verse 19), the Greek word can include reasoning, intentions and plans as well. Further, Jesus qualifies these thoughts by calling them wicked or vicious. This description plainly fits when we learn that these thoughts include murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. For example, the religious leaders are already planning to murder Jesus and have slandered him by claiming that his miraculous acts are empowered by Satan rather than the Holy Spirit.

At last, Jesus returns to the original accusation against his disciples (verse 20). They are innocent of defilement because eating with unwashed hands can only affect what goes into the mouth and later emerges. Compared to the religious leaders, their hearts are pure even if their hands are not!

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] To clarify, I am certainly not talking about fellow members of the Life Group I belong to, who continually show that they are seeking to know God better! They inspire all who visit our group.

A major break — part 2, Matthew 15:10-14

One interesting thing about a Dallas Cowboys football game is that if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. The ticket qualifies you to enter the stadium and sit in a particular seat. In a similar way, avoiding ritual defilement was necessary in the time of Jesus to enter the temple and worship God. Those who were defiled, according to the law, were not qualified to enter and worship.

Because the temple was central to the worship of God, a great deal of rabbinic teaching existed to define defilement and to spell out how to eliminate it. You would think that defilement would be the one thing that all Jewish religious leaders understood. But Jesus refuted that belief.

Matthew 15:10-14

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someones mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?
13 He replied, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.

Commentary

When Jesus summons the crowd to listen and understand (verse 10), that sets the stage for an escalation of the conflict between him and the Jewish religious leaders. What Jesus says in verse 11 seems simple enough to us, but it directly contradicted the teaching of the Jewish religious leaders about defilement. They claimed that defilement came from external sources, but Jesus said that what emerges from the mouth, from the inside of a person, is what defiles that person.

When we get to verse 18, Jesus will identify the exact inner source of what defiles a person.
Presumably some time passed after Jesus spoke to the crowd (verse 11), and during that time the Pharisees were seething and deeply offended over what Jesus had said about defilement. The disciples quickly learned of this development and went to Jesus to warn him of it (verse 12). The disciples show the respect many must have felt toward a high-level delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem.

Jesus answers the news with a surprising metaphor: Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots (verse 13). Since the traditions of the Pharisees contradict the commandment of God, they are the ones who can expect to be pulled up by the roots! This language may well look back to the Parable of the Weeds, where Jesus taught about the separation that will take place at the final judgment.[1] Jesus disciples are the plants established by God, not the Pharisees and their allies.

As to how they might relate to the offended Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples, Leave them (verse 14a), with the idea of abandoning them and going on to something else. This Greek verb is also used for divorce. In offering his reasons for this action, Jesus returns to metaphors: They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (verse 14b). In the arid climate of Palestine, cisterns were dug underground and lined with stone. The surface entry was often a terrible hazard for those unable to see.

Ritual purity, and therefore defilement, held extreme importance to the Pharisees. Jesus has already crossed the boundary of propriety by touching women, lepers and even the dead in order to heal them. Now he moves from deed to word in teaching that defilement comes from within, not from externals. R. T. France explains the significance by saying, After this dialogue the breach between Jesus and the scribal establishment is irreparable.[2]

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Passages such as Isaiah 5:1-7 contain similar ideas.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 575.

A Major Break Part 1, Matthew 15:1-9

This section of Matthew gives us a glimpse of the sharp theological conflicts that Jesus will later face in Jerusalem. Jerusalem cast its shadow over Galilee by sending a group of religious leaders to create problems for Jesus. The resulting clash was extremely sharp, though our Gentile outlook and lack of exposure to regulations invented by the Pharisees make us blind to the gravity of the disagreement.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp the first signs of a major conflict. On the morning of December 7, 1941, an Army radar operator on the north shore the Hawaiian island of Oahu showed his superior officer a radar echo that stretched from one side of the radar screen to the other. But they decided not to report the echo to headquarters because they thought that the radar set must need adjustment. That echo was the first wave of the inbound Japanese strike force sent to attack Pearl Harbor!

To our eyes this disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders seems like just-one-more. But it proved to be a point of no return between those leaders and Jesus.

Matthew 15:1-9

1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They dont wash their hands before they eat!

3 Jesus replied, And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, Honor your father and mother and Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is devoted to God, 6 they are not to honor their father or mother with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

8 These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

Commentary

Remember that Matthew alternates between narrative sequences (with action) and discourses (with speeches or parables for crowds). Matthew 15 stands within one of the narrative sections. In a previous one, Jesus had a major conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, who accused him of performing his miracles by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:22-32). With opposition against Jesus hardening, he will soon strike a blow against one of the pillars of Jewish religion — its purity rules. We might also express this conflict with the term defilement. The key question is this: what does it take to defile someone in the eyes of God?

The main problem you will have in understanding the issues between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is that they involve ancient laws and customs that are not part of our common experience. I will help you bridge that gap.

Hired Guns Shooting Blanks

Perhaps Jesus had so overwhelmed the Pharisees and scribes of Galilee that they had summoned help. But, whatever the reason, a new team came to Galilee from Jerusalem, and they promptly tried to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the people (verses 1-2). First, they tried exaggeration by saying that Jesus disciples were breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating (verse 2).

The Law of Moses required only that priests wash before doing their duties (Exodus 30:18-21) or eating their share of the food offered in sacrifice (Leviticus 22:4-7). In other words, ordinary Jews had no legal requirement to wash. The scribes had tried to broaden such requirements to all Jews and all eating, and the Pharisees had adopted this tradition.[1] Now they are acting like this tradition is an ancient requirement from God through Moses!

Without missing a beat, Jesus counters with a higher level charge that the scribes and Pharisees are breaking the command of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 3). Here, command is being contrasted to tradition, and the Jewish religious leaders are being contrasted with God in terms of primacy! Having made the general charge, Jesus follows with the specifics.

The commands Jesus cites in verses 3-4 are taken from Exodus 20:12 (for verse 3) and Exodus 21:17 (for verse 4). These commands are what God said on Mount Sinai. So, as part of the Ten Commandments, God commanded that every Jew honor their father and mother, and a subsequent command from God made violation of the commandment a capital offense. Jesus says that the Jewish religious leaders have committed and encouraged capital offenses. In verses 5-6, he provides the details.

An Unusual Custom

Jesus is showing that a certain Pharisaic tradition called korban (Greek) could be used to circumvent obeying the Fifth Commandment to honor your parents. Korban (also spelled corban) consisted of pledging money or other material resources to the temple to be paid when you died. You had full use of these funds or resources during your lifetime, with the one exception that you could not give them to anyone else — such as your needy parents — because they were pledged to God.[1] Jesus accuses the religious leaders of using their tradition of korban to nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 6).

The korban tradition allows a person to cover their lack of love and obedience with a cloak of spirituality. Jesus calls those who teach such ideas hypocrites, a term which means that they are not so much deceivers as disastrously self-deceived, failing to see things as God sees them.[2] But, he goes farther by applying to them the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13, where God says: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

We too are capable of hiding behind ritual by doing certain carefully selected church activities but avoiding those designed to meet the material or spiritual needs of those living in poverty and darkness.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 577.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 238.

[3] France, Matthew, 237.